California Dreamer

By David Hill — November 01, 1993 25 min read

This is the ninth in a series of profiles of teacher leaders underwritten by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Cudahy, Calif., is one of those small cities southeast of Los Angeles that even most Southern Californians are only vaguely aware of. Bordered by the city of Bell to the north, South Gate to the south, Huntington Park to the west, and Bell Gardens to the east, the city is part of an area characterized by The Los Angeles Times as “California in a microcosm: dead factories, a lot of immigrants, gangs, poverty, crowded schools.’' With a population of about 23,000 packed into 1.1 square miles, Cudahy ranks as the third densest city in Los Angeles County. It is also poor: According to the 1990 census, 27.4 percent of its residents live below the poverty level. From 1980 to 1990, Cudahy’s Hispanic population increased by 62 percent, while its Anglo population decreased by 61 percent. It is now about 90 percent Hispanic. One could live a lifetime in Cudahy and not speak a word of English.

This is where Christine Gutierrez has come to help create a “break the mold’’ school. As she arrives at the Elizabeth Street Learning Center, one of Cudahy’s five schools (the city is served by the massive Los Angeles Unified School District), it is not yet 10 o’clock on an August morning and already the temperature is in the high 80s, and the air is in the “unhealthful’’ range. Gutierrez is wearing a red blouse, faded black slacks, white socks, and black loafers--casual clothes that make her look younger than her 38 years. She has the kind of energy about her that can only be described as “boundless.’' Fresh from a two-week visit with her sister in Colorado, Gutierrez seems eager to get back to work. And make no mistake about it--there’s plenty of work to be done.

As it is for many of its residents, Cudahy is new territory for Gutierrez. Although she lives in Santa Monica, her “home’’ for the last five years has been Thomas Jefferson High School in South Central Los Angeles, where she teaches in the school’s highly regarded “Humanitas’’ program. Since the fall of 1992, however, Gutierrez also has taken a leading role in shaping the Los Angeles Learning Centers, one of 11 innovative projects nationwide selected by the New American Schools Development Corp. to “reinvent’’ America’s schools.

NASDC, a nonprofit organization created in 1991 by business leaders at the behest of President Bush, has so far pledged $5.7 million to help fund the learning centers, which will serve students in prekindergarten through 12th grade. The Elizabeth Street School, which previously served 1,600 students in prekindergarten through 7th grade, was selected to become the first center; after a transition period this fall, it will officially begin operating as the Elizabeth Street Learning Center in January--although the new name is already being used. (The site of the second learning center has not yet been announced.)

As Elizabeth Street’s curricular coach/lead teacher, Gutierrez will have her hands full in the coming months. But first she must get comfortable in her new surroundings. She has met most of her colleagues, but she is still trying to learn some names. So it isn’t surprising when, as she enters the school building, she calls the receptionist Marcie instead of Angie. Realizing her mistake, Gutierrez quickly apologizes and then proceeds to Vice Principal Mary Stallings’ office, where the teacher receives a warm welcome. Eddie Muoz, who teaches 7th and 8th grade, stops by to say hello. A former high school teacher, Muoz transferred to Elizabeth Street just so he could participate in the learning center project. “It’s a school,’' he says, “where I can be innovative and creative and know that I have the support of the administration.’'

Gutierrez makes her way to the mail room, where she finds a note in her box from one of the teachers. It says:


After two weeks of school, we have come to a conclusion. We need money. Big money. Can you help us with grant writing or something?


Gutierrez, who has written numerous grant proposals to help supplement Jefferson High’s Humanitas program, files the note away; she seems pleased that her advice is being solicited. After all, her entire career has been about empowering herself as a teacher, and she’s eager to see other teachers experience the feeling for themselves.

The word that comes closest to describing Christine Gutierrez is “outspoken.’' Asked if she is more of an activist than a teacher, she replies, “For me, you can’t separate the two.’' Her heroes include such freethinkers as Mahatma Gandhi, John Dewey, and Howard Gardner. “I’ve always been attracted to people like Thoreau,’' she says, “people who were willing to take risks.’'

It is ironic that Gutierrez, a strong advocate of public education, is herself a product of private schools. The granddaughter of Mexican-American immigrants, she grew up in a large family in the affluent community of Pacific Palisades, a world away from South Central or Cudahy. From kindergarten through 12th grade, she attended parochial schools, graduating (as valedictorian) from Marymount High School in Westwood in 1973. These schools have had a lasting influence on Gutierrez, particularly on her thoughts about education. “I think what private schools have to offer is a family orientation,’' she says, “that very distinct sense of community. You don’t just go to a school; you belong to that school.’'

As a student at Stanford University, Gutierrez created her own interdisciplinary major, Renaissance Studies, and immersed herself in academia. Yet she dropped out after three years and returned to Los Angeles. “Being at Stanford was wonderful,’' she says, “but I needed some time to step back from the academic world. I needed to get into the community and work.’'

For a while, she worked as an editor at a Santa Monica law firm, exploring the possibility of becoming a lawyer. The law, however, was “intellectually stimulating but emotionally void.’' She realized she wanted to work with kids, so she quit the job at the law firm and began coaching volleyball at her former elementary school.

At the same time, Gutierrez--a pacifist--was becoming more and more involved in the nuclear-freeze movement, which was then gaining momentum in the politically charged atmosphere of Santa Monica. Working as a volunteer, she lobbied, canvassed, protested, and licked postage stamps-- “everything from putting out the trash to answering the phones.’'

By 1987, Gutierrez had come to the conclusion that, although she loved being a volleyball coach, she wanted to work with kids in a different setting: in the classroom. So she returned to Stanford, first completing her undergraduate degree (her thesis: “Thomas More’s Utopia: Simplicity and Human Growth’’) and then earning a master’s degree in education, with credentials to teach English and social studies. She fielded offers from a number of schools, including Marymount, her alma mater. “But that was too easy,’' she says. Gutierrez knew she wanted to teach in the inner city, and she knew she wanted to teach in a school where teachers were encouraged to work closely with their colleagues. “I wanted intellectual rigor within a collaborative atmosphere,’' she says. “I didn’t want to be just an isolated teacher.’' She’d heard about the Humanitas program at Thomas Jefferson High School, which sits in one of Los Angeles’ toughest neighborhoods. For Gutierrez, there was never any doubt: This was the school for her.

Once a predominantly black high school--among its graduates are such noted African Americans as choreographer Alvin Ailey, actor Woody Strode, singer and actress Dorothy Dandridge, jazz musician Dexter Gordon, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche--Jefferson High now serves about 3,300 students, 90 percent of them Hispanic. The school is an art deco gem that has been used as a backdrop in numerous movies and television shows. Yet it is like an oasis in the desert, a desert made up of tired-looking bungalows and graffiti-covered walls. A few blocks away, on a small commercial strip, you can still see the burned-out reminders of the 1992 riots (which Gutierrez prefers to call “uprisings’’).

Gutierrez had her concerns about working in an area known more for its gangs than for its schools. When she first saw the neighborhood, she was riding a bus on her way to her job interview. (For years, Gutierrez was one of the few people in Los Angeles who, for ecological reasons, actually chose not to own a car. Recently, however, after some soul-searching, she broke down and bought a pickup truck.) Looking out the window, she wondered what she had gotten herself into. When she stepped off the bus, she followed a group of teenage girls who were on their way to summer school at Jefferson. Listening in on their conversation, Gutierrez was relieved to hear them talking about the usual things teenage girls talk about: boys and parties. “They were just ordinary kids,’' she says.

Gutierrez got the job, and, in September 1988, she began teaching history in the Humanitas program. A school within a school, Humanitas is an interdisciplinary, thematic, writingbased curriculum designed to provide students with the kind of enriched academic program more typical of private schools. The goal, according to program literature, is to help students become “critical thinkers, responsible problem solvers, intelligent articulators, and socially conscious community members.’' Teachers in the program work together to create core courses, which are organized around central themes: “Women, Race, and Social Protest,’' for example. Although they must adhere to state and district guidelines, Humanitas teachers are given a great deal of freedom in deciding how they will meet those goals.

Humanitas was launched in 1986 in several Los Angeles high schools, and it has since spread to 36 of the district’s 52 comprehensive high schools. Much of the program’s financial support has come from the Los Angeles Education Partnership, the nation’s oldest and largest public education fund, along with a handful of private foundations.

At Jefferson, about 500 of the school’s students take part in Humanitas. To get into the program, interested students must fill out a single-page application, which asks such questions as, “What type of books/magazines/newspapers do you like to read?’' and “Are you willing to work very hard (including homework every night) to have excellent attendance, to be motivated to study and learn, and to achieve success in this nationally recognized program?’'

The cross section of students, Gutierrez says, “is meant to be heterogeneous. So we draw on kids with 4th grade reading levels all the way up to 12-plus, gifted and talented. We do not look at grades.’' Until recently, she says, almost everyone who applied to Humanitas at Jefferson was accepted, but last year they had to turn away about 20 percent.

For students who are used to a traditional classroom environment, Humanitas can come as something of a shock. “We’re not looking for just regurgitation of facts,’' Gutierrez says. “We’re also looking for conceptual understanding, elegance of style--and that’s not just in writing. So it’s hard for some kids to accept. They have to perform in a lot of ways that they’re not used to performing. It’s not enough for them to be brilliant in discussion.’'

Gutierrez, who is also assistant coordinator of the program, refers to her students and colleagues in Humanitas as a “family’'--which isn’t to say that everyone gets along with each other all the time. “Typically,’' she says, “the kids are attracted to the way we relate to them. But it’s not lovey-dovey by any means. We can be harsh with them, brutal sometimes.’'

Tony Zepeda, a friendly 17-year-old with an intense gaze and a buzz haircut, credits Humanitas with helping him grow “both emotionally and socially.’'

“Before,’' he says, “when people talked to me, I would stumble and stutter. I wouldn’t know what to say. I would just be confused. But now, I’ve learned how to speak, and I’ve learned how to analyze. And I’ve learned how to utilize what I say.’'

Several years ago, Tony joined a gang. “All my friends were doing it,’' he says, “and I just wanted to be a part of it.’' But when he saw one of his best friends shot to death, “coldblooded,’' he gave up the gang life. Recently elected Jefferson’s studentbody president, the 12th grader has found a sense of identity in the Humanitas program. “This is a place where I can let everyone know how I feel,’' he says. “This is a place where I can be me.’'

Pamela Aschbacher, project director at the Center for the Study of Evaluation at the University of California at Los Angeles, conducted a three-year study of Humanitas. In a summary published in Educational Leadership magazine, she wrote:

“Evidence from surveys, interviews, and assignments suggests that Humanitas teachers assign harder work, expect more from students, and require more complex thought in class discussions and unit essays than comparison teachers. Yet Humanitas students like school better than comparison students, even though they find it demanding.

“Several students noted in interviews that they could ‘probably be getting easy A’s in the “cake bake’’ classes’ but that they preferred to be working harder for B’s in Humanitas. The reason? They say they believe they’ll learn more and that the experience will help them get into college and do well. In addition, they feel their Humanitas teachers and fellow students care far more about them than comparison students think their teachers and classmates do.

“The program has been successful with a diverse population of students, including those who are just learning English and those who have already failed courses and seem likely to drop out of school. As one teacher put it, ‘This program motivates students who would otherwise tune out.’ ''

Humanitas teachers, Aschbacher concluded, get as much out of the program as do the students: “Being a Humanitas teacher requires a lot of effort. Teachers who participate in the program must learn a portion of one another’s subjects in order to create an interdisciplinary program, develop themes and curriculums, collaborate with colleagues on a daily basis to coordinate instruction, and grade performance-based assignments. And yet, they almost unanimously report that participating in Humanitas is one of the most renewing experiences they have had.... That the program creates a community of scholars within the larger, impersonal school context is critical to its success.’'

Even the best enterprises, it seems, have their critics, and some administrators, Gutierrez points out, have not been so keen on the Humanitas program. “I can’t really say it’s been malicious,’' she says. “It’s been more of a subtle power issue. It’s teacher-led, right? So it’s out of the hands of the administrators.’' Also, some non-Humanitas teachers have been resentful of the program. “They have, in the past, been frustrated with us, thinking, ‘You guys get whatever you want,’ forgetting it’s not an issue of our getting whatever we want--we just won’t take no for an answer. Our bottom line is, is it good for the kids? Which means, at times, we break the rules. We break a lot of rules, including the hierarchical rules. We have no bones about going to the superintendent, about walking into offices, about hassling people.... We’re known to be very outspoken, to be rabble-rousers.’'

Gutierrez is the first to admit that teaching in the Humanitas program can be extremely demanding. “It is definitely much more than a job,’' she says. After a difficult first year, during which her classroom was vandalized five times, she began showing signs of burnout. By spring of her second year, she was “completely burned out emotionally and physically.’'

“I didn’t feel that I was focused enough,’' she says. “I’m not the kind of person who can give halfway.... I had so many things going on.’' She decided to take a three-and-a-half-week, unpaid leave of absence. She saw a lot of movies, read a lot of books, did a lot of crossword puzzles, and spent a lot of time with her husband, Randy Ziglar. “Mostly,’' she says, “I got quiet and tried to reconnect with who I am and what I really wanted to do.’'

During that time, Gutierrez was asked to give the commencement speech at Marymount High School. “I was really touched and honored,’' she says. “But it was so ironic for it to be coming in the period when I was saying, ‘Am I failing? Am I on the right track?’ ''

She began thinking about what she would say in her speech, and, as her thoughts began to crystallize, she realized that she had been too hard on herself, that she hadn’t given herself “permission to fail’’ during her first two years of teaching. She returned to Jefferson, ready to give it another try.

On a sunny day in late May of 1990, Gutierrez looked out at Marymount’s graduating seniors, a “sea of smiles,’' and hinted at the period of reflection she had recently gone through. “The mind is an organism, meant to evolve,’' she said. “As one is thinking, one is acting and, thus, growing.... Growth is the essence of education. To [John] Dewey, the good person is the one who continues to grow, continues therefore to give of oneself. Dewey wrote, ‘The good man is the man who, no matter how morally unworthy he has been, is moving to become better. Such a conception makes one severe in judging himself and humane in judging others.’ ''

Gutierrez urged the students to “question the status quo; question assumptions; question your needs and the needs of society, the needs of the planet....

“It is not enough that you have successfully learned your lessons in the classroom throughout your Marymount years-- you need to connect those lessons with how you act outside the classroom in your community, at home, at work, at play. You need to have the courage to act on those lessons now.’'

Gutierrez told the seniors “to be aware of the consequences of your actions and to take responsibility for your choices,’' and then she went on to defend a choice she had made, a choice she had recently questioned and then reaffirmed.

“The truth is, I teach in the inner city because there my values are tested, and I am forced to give more of myself.... The inner city is fraught with violence, drive-by shootings, crack houses, downtrodden storefronts, littered streets, and graffiti-covered walls. Yet, South Central Los Angeles, like Westwood, is also teeming with life, stirring with potential, full of promise. Celebrating life; that is why we are here. We celebrate life best by renewing it with our gifts.’'

By the time the Los Angeles Educational Partnership decided to take part in the NASDC competition, the deadline--Feb. 14, 1992-- was only four months away. Initially, about 150 parents, teachers, community activists, and business leaders--"a panoply of people,’' Gutierrez says, “many of whom had never talked with one another about education’'-- met in the Atlantic Richfield Co. building in downtown Los Angeles to map out a vision for the future. Gutierrez, along with other Humanitas teachers, was among those who had been asked to attend the meeting.

“We weren’t interested in merely creating handbooks for teachers,’' Gutierrez says. “We really wanted to break the mold.... It was an opportunity for a lot of different people in Los Angeles to sit down and really examine how we’re educating our young people.’'

To help make the process easier, eight task forces were created to deal with the major issues: assessment, curriculum, parent involvement, health and social services, technology, governance, professional development, and facilities. Gutierrez was asked to co-chair the committee on assessment. The groups met once a week for three-hour sessions, creating, Gutierrez says, “reams of paper.’'

“We had no preconceived ideas, and we didn’t have a guru,’' Peggy Funkhouser, president of the LAEP, told The Los Angeles Times, “but what we came up with represents an amazing amount of consensus.’'

It was Funkhouser who asked Gutierrez to join the project’s 19-member design team, a diverse body that included such educational heavies as William Anton, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District; Helen Bernstein, president of United Teachers-Los Angeles, the teachers’ union; and Guilbert Hentschke, dean of the University of Southern California’s school of education. Gutierrez was the team’s only teacher. “I felt humbled,’' she says. “I had only been teaching for four years. I still thought of myself as the new kid on the block.’'

Four months after that initial meeting, the consortium-- now made up of the LAEP, the school district, the teachers’ union, Atlantic Richfield, Bank of America, GTE California, Rockwell International, and the Times Mirror Co.--had its proposal, a 1-inch thick document rich with school reform ideas. The proposal called for integrating a number of different concepts over a five-year period at two test sites. Among the most significant components:

  • Educator as continual learner. Teachers are to be allocated the equivalent of a day a week for professional development, for planning with other teachers, and for meeting with students.

  • “Moving Diamond’’ concept. Each student will be matched with a younger student, an older student, a teacher, and a parent or community volunteer, creating a “diamond’’ matrix that will stay in place for several years. The rationale: “Focus on the individual is sharpened, and every student will know he or she has a stake in someone else.’'

  • In-depth thematic teaching. As they do in the Humanitas program, students will attend interdisciplinary classes for large blocks of time, creating portfolios and working on longterm projects.

  • Community as classroom and resource. “The ‘egg carton’ classroom dominated by a teacher-lecturer with tedious textbook exercises is our own stereotype of school. By using the entire community as a source of intellectual and personal growth, we [will] break this ancient mold.’'

In addition, the proposal called for the integration and linking of health and social services, a strong emphasis on technology, a clearly defined set of learning outcomes for each subject, and a “transition to work’’ program for students in their final two years of high school.

The consortium asked NASDC for enough money-- approximately $18.5 million--to fund the learning centers through the 1996-1997 school year.

Having met the Feb. 14 deadline, the consortium members waited patiently for NASDC to sift through the submissions-- all 686 of them--and make a decision.

Sometime in mid-June, Gutierrez got a phone call from Funkhouser. “This is confidential,’' she said. “NASDC wants to interview us. We are one of the finalists. Helen [Bernstein] can’t go, but she asked that you go in her place.’'

Gutierrez had less than a week to prepare for the presentation, which was to take place on June 19 in Arlington, Va., at NASDC’s office in the USA Today building. “I really had to do a lot of homework,’' she says, “because I was the one who was going to speak on curricular matters, on what was going to happen in the classroom.’' Funkhouser would be there, along with Andrew Cazares, an assistant superintendent for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Not wanting to miss any more school than she had to, Gutierrez took a red-eye flight to Washington, D.C., the night before the interview was to take place. She arrived at National Airport at 6 a.m., took a cab to an Arlington hotel, checked in, took a two-hour nap, and then met her two colleagues in the hotel lobby. It was the first time they had all met together, face to face; Funkhouser had met with both Gutierrez and Cazares, individually, but Gutierrez and Cazares had never met.

They had no idea what the interview would be like. How many people would be there? How long would it last? What would the room look like? “We didn’t know anything,’' Gutierrez says.

In the lobby, they agreed on which aspects of the proposal each of them would be responsible for, then they all went back to their rooms for some last-minute cramming. After a quick lunch, they took a cab to the USA Today building for what turned out to be an “intense’’ three-hour interview. “They grilled us,’' Gutierrez recalls, “but we knew we were blowing them away.’' Still, she had doubts about whether they would actually win the grant.

After it was over, Gutierrez went straight to the airport to catch a flight back to Los Angeles. “I slept all the way home,’' she remembers.

A few weeks later, Gutierrez was at a meeting in Boston when she got a “frantic’’ phone call from Funkhouser’s assistant. “Where have you been?’' she asked. “We’ve been trying to reach you! They want you in Washington tomorrow.’' NASDC had selected the learning center project as one of the 11 winning designs.

Gutierrez was thrilled--but also nervous about the work that lay ahead. “It was clearly one of those cases of, ‘Be careful what you wish for,’ '' she says.

Back in Los Angeles, Peggy Funkhouser urged Gutierrez to become full-time director of the learning center project. But Gutierrez couldn’t bring herself to give up teaching in her beloved Humanitas program, so she ended up splitting the job with design-team member Harry Handler, a former superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District who is now assistant dean at the UCLA Graduate School of Education. Gutierrez, Handler, and a core group of design-team members met regularly to chart a course for implementing the project.

Their first task: selecting a school that would become the first learning center. For one thing, it had to be an inner-city school that could easily be converted to a K-12 facility. And it had to have a staff that was willing to throw preconceived notions out the window.

The Elizabeth Street School fit the bill. Last January, Gutierrez and other design-team members attended a faculty meeting at the school to make the case for the project. A week later, the teachers voted 54 to 6 to implement the plan. Those teachers who didn’t want to participate were given the chance to transfer to other schools in the district.

Since then, it’s been “one giant jigsaw puzzle’’ setting up the learning center, says Mike Shannon, a school psychologist who is coordinating the project’s health and human services components. “We’ll be a different school in January.’'

This fall, Gutierrez is dividing her time between Jefferson High, where she is teaching two Humanitas classes, and Elizabeth Street, where, as curricular coach/lead teacher, she is helping the teachers write the curriculum they will begin using in January. (Although she is still on the design team, Gutierrez is no longer co-director of the learning center proj- ect; last May, Roberta Benjamin, a former school principal, was named full-time director.)

Helping Gutierrez put all the pieces in place at Elizabeth Street are three additional lead teachers, including Anola Hubbert, who has taught at the school since 1985. “I feel very fortunate to be involved in this,’' she says. “I really do.’' Hubbert was on the verge of quitting her job and moving to Arizona when she found out about the learning center project. “I felt that I needed a new challenge. I needed something different. And when this came along, I said, ‘There’s no way I can leave now.’ ''

Hubbert offers nothing but praise for Gutierrez. “She’s fantastic,’' she says. “Cris is the type of person who makes me want to give 150 percent. She’s really dedicated to making this program work.... She has so much energy.’'

If energy were all it took to create a “break the mold’’ school, the Elizabeth Street Learning Center would already be a success. But Gutierrez is smart enough to know that it takes a lot more. One thing that she worries about is the money. NASDC has reportedly raised only about $55 million of its original $200 million goal, a target that was recently lowered to $100 million. In addition, two of the original 11 projects have lost NASDC support. NASDC is now negotiating contracts with the remaining nine projects one year at a time.

“I’m not sure what’s going to happen,’' Gutierrez says. “Is it fair to ask a lot of people to shift things around and then pull the carpet out from under them?’' She hopes that, even if all the funding doesn’t come through, much of the project will remain in place. At the moment, plans to open a second learning center next July are still on track.

What impact the learning centers will have on the beleaguered Los Angeles Unified School District is anybody’s guess. Lately, the project has been overshadowed by the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, or LEARN, a sweeping plan to raise student achievement by shifting decisionmaking to local schools. Although opposed by some teachers, the plan--now being implemented in 36 schools, including Elizabeth Street--is seen by many as the district’s best chance for improving its schools. (A measure to break up the school district into at least seven smaller units died in the state legislature last July.)

Meanwhile, California voters in November will decide the fate of a plan that would grant vouchers to parents who wish to send their children to private or parochial schools. Education policymakers across the country are anxious to see whether Californians embrace the initiative. After all, as Harold Hodgkinson, director of the Center for Demographic Policy, once wrote: “Leap with joy, be blithe and gay/ Or weep my friend with sorrow./ What California is today/ The rest will be tomorrow.’'

Christine Gutierrez is doing her best to see that the future of Cudahy--and thus, the future of California--is a little bit brighter. “We’re trying to do a hell of a lot in a short time,’' she says, “and I just don’t know if we’re going to be able to pull it off. But we’ll do our damndest.’'

This is the ninth in a series of profiles of teacher leaders underwritten by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1993 edition of Teacher as California Dreamer